Brothers Russell (1898-1959) and Sigurd Varian (1901-1961), sons of Irish intellectuals, grew up in Palo Alto and at the utopian community of Halcyon, California. All three of the Varian’s sons were fascinated by electricity (youngest son Eric later became an electrician).
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After earning his bachelor’s (1924) and master’s degree (1927) in physics at Stanford University, Russell was working at Humble Oil when he came up with his first patent, a vibrating magnetometer. After six months at Humble, he moved on to work with Philo Farnsworth on television tube technology. Meanwhile, Sigurd had become an accomplished pilot, airplane mechanic, and self-taught engineer, eventually flying for Pan-American World Airways. Flying to Latin America, he experienced the need for all weather navigational and safety systems that would detect other airplanes and facilitate landing at night or in bad weather.
The brothers reunited at Halcyon in 1935, where they worked on radio-based technology using microwaves to develop a radio compass similar to those used at sea. They sought advice from Russell’s college roommate, William Hansen, now a Stanford physics professor. Hansen convinced Stanford to hire them as research associates, with lab space and $100 a year for lab equipment, in exchange for one-half of any royalties they might receive from patents. This “$100 idea” led to the founding of Varian Associates.
Russell devised a way to use velocity modulation to allow electrons to flow in bunches and to control their speed. With Hansen, the Varian brothers created the klystron, the first tube that could generate electromagnetic waves at microwave frequencies. Sperry Gyroscope recognized the value of their efforts, and contracted with them for further work. The Sperry contracts and their later work during World War II strongly influenced research in the U.S. and Britain on desperately needed radar technology.
Varian Associates was founded in San Carlos in 1948. It soon became the world’s largest manufacturer of klystrons, a key component of in commercial and military airborne radar and the microwave industry, as klystrons were used in televisions, medical technology and telecommunications. They also were key to development of Stanford’s mile-long Linear Accelerator.